'Looted' art on display in Austria

AFP 3 March 2008

A controversial art exhibit in Vienna has again raised the debate over the presence of looted Jewish property in Austrian public collections, ahead of the 70th anniversary of Austria's annexation by Nazi Germany.

Critics say the exhibition at Vienna's Leopold Museum of works by Tyrolean painter Albin Egger-Lienz - a key figure in early 20th Century Austrian art - features over a dozen works of dubious origin.

These include a 1910 painting of two peasants, stolen from a Jewish architect Oskar Neumann and presented by the local Nazi leadership to Adolf Hitler on his birthday in 1939.

The opposition Green party has already described the exhibit as "the greatest display of looted art in Austria in years" and has called for the paintings to be restored to their previous owners.

The president of the Austrian Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant, went a step further and called last week for the Leopold Museum to be shut down until it complies with legislation on the restitution of looted Jewish property.

Austria passed this law in 1998 after a US court seized two Egon Schiele paintings - apparently stolen from their previous Jewish owners - at a New York exhibit.

The artworks came from the Leopold collection.

Since then, the law has enabled the restitution of thousands of artworks, including five major paintings by Gustav Klimt - four of which were auctioned off in New York in 2006 for a total sum of over $US190 million ($200 million).

But the renowned Leopold Museum - which has some 5,000 artworks, including masterpieces by Klimt and the largest collection of Schiele paintings and sketches in the world - has managed to avoid any restitutions.

Founded by Rudolf Leopold, the museum is categorised as a private foundation, even though it was bought up by the Austrian state in 1994 in exchange for building and funding it.

Mr Muzicant has asked that the law be modified so that it may apply to this institution as well, and the president of the High Administrative Court, Clemens Jabloner, agrees.

"On principle, everything of dubious origin should be returned," Mr Jabloner said.

The Culture Ministry also says it is "the Republic's moral duty" to ensure that stolen artworks are returned to their rightful owners, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Anschluss on March 12.

Austria's annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938 led to the systematic looting of Jewish property and assets, many of which were subsequently found in national public collections.

However, the 82-year-old Leopold - who sees himself as "the greatest Austrian collector of the 20th Century" and "the re-discoverer of Schiele" - has always denied knowingly acquiring stolen Jewish objects.

"Works bought legally and in good faith should be able to remain in Austria," he told the weekly magazine Falter, adding that heirs were "only interested in money."

The Austrian National Fund for the Victims of National Socialism will submit proposals in March to improve the restitution process.
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